Announcing Rio’s Henry Jenkins Transmedia Lab

I have written from time to time here about my travels to Brazil and my wonderful engagement with the people who are shaping the creative industries down there. It is a country which has embraced my ideas with a passion that I have seen few other places, and in return, I have fallen in love with their culture, their people, their landscape, and their media. I was deeply honored recently with the Rio Content Market launched the Henry Jenkins Transmedia Lab (*Blush*) and I wanted to share some information about this initiative here with my readers.

The Rio Content Market is an international event dedicated to multi-platform content production and open to the television and digital media industry. On its first edition, Rio Content Market hosted the gathering of 170 executives from both national and international markets to share experiences, with the attendance of more than 1.000 members of the television and digital media industry. The second edition of Rio Content Market had keynotes and panels from leading professionals of the field. There were debates, pitching sessions, and rounds of negotiations, and this year, they announced the launch of the Transmedia Lab.

A partnership between the Brazilian Independent Producers Association and The Alchemists. The Transmedia Lab selected 12 transmedia projects (among 170) from

Brazil and Latin America in 3 main categories: (i) web, (ii) TV and (iii) Apps & Games. These projects were analyzed by tutors who will work with the authors to improve them. Later, the selected projects will be pitched and their authors can meet interested players face to face. The winning project – Contacts by Segunda Feira Films, won a

trip to participate on Transmedia Hollywood and will be co-produced by the Alchemists for international markets. The Henry Jenkins Transmedia Lab will be a talent and IP developing platform that will occur between US and Brazil.

We were able to showcase Contacts at this year’s Transmedia Hollywood event and introduce its producers to our audience. (I was unfortunately unable to attend the event due to some medical issues). So, now is my first chance to publicly share my enthusiasm and respect for what Segunda Feira Films has been able to produce — a project which makes imaginative use of social media not as an added on feature but as a central focus of its story, which deals with the possibility that we might receive communications from the dead. At the heart of Contacts is a rich genre-mixing story, which is bold in its experimentation with alternative modes of audience engagement. I hope you will agree.

Mauricio Mota, the key force behind the launch of the Lab and the person who has done the most to introduce me and my work to Brazil, wrote an important statement about the state of transmedia in his country as part of the launch of the lab. I am happy to share it with you here.

LETTER TO THE CONSULTANTS AND PRODUCERS OF THE SELLECTED PROJECTS

by Maurício Mota, Chief Storytelling Officer of The Alchemists

Transmedia Storytelling Co

“First the story, then the platforms”

“First the plot, then the iPhone, my son”.

“First a good intrigue and characters, then the character’s Facebook page”.

Transmea Culpa

In 2007 I had my first contact with the term “transmedia storytelling” in its origin. For more than a week at MIT, I accessed the academic, theoretic and analytic aspects as

well as the commercial, capitalist and Hollywood ones. And when I left I had been transformed by two people: Henry Jenkins and Mark Warshaw. The first, the pope of convergence, a great fan of pop culture and the first academicwho built a healthy bridge between those who think and those who make culture; the second, a pioneer of transmedia storytelling in broadcast television: for eight years he revolutionized Superman in Smallville and made as much noise with the first season of Heroes as Lost made.

We became partners that year. Nice, huh? More or less. It’s a bit more complicated.

Here begins this Transmea Culpa, which could have no better place to happen than in Rio-ContentMarket, in Brazil, during the opening of the first Transmedia Lab of Latin America. From the moment when I brought the term transmedia to Brazil, I had the aid of

Meio & Mensagem Group, which understood that this new manner of storytelling would bring innovation to the whole market: storytellers, advertisers, vehicles, agencies and

so on.

They all loved it and started using the term: scripts, projects and PowerPoint slides. Viral videos became transmedia, games became transmedia, cell phone apps became

transmedia, making bogus character blogs became transmedia. There you have it; everyone began to own the latest word. And we were all wrong.

Because excited as we were with the English term and the American cases, everyone was so astonished that they forgot that transmedia storytelling means a TRANSMEDIA NARRATIVE. And in doing so we simply focused on the MEDIA, forgetting the importance of stories and content. Or at least we put all that in the background.

Then we had to repeat endlessly to clients and partners: “first the story, then the platforms”. “First the plot, then the iPhone,my son”. “First a good intrigue and characters, then the character’s Facebook page”. Then, besides giving too much audience to Twitter and Facebook (current crazes) this frenzy brought along an unnecessary strife: the

strife between generations or types.

On one side producers, distributors, directors and experienced content creators of consolidated media. On the other side, the generation that considers itself Avant-garde, off the curve, those who understand completely the new media because they spend more time in the social media and own an iPhone. And the only loser is the story.

Because the consolidated bring to the table a repertoire and an experience that you can only amass in time. And the young add freshness and the will to transgress of those who have nothing to lose. If they’re mixed, these characteristics are an unbeatable alchemy in the content area.

And this dispute between who is right and who is wrong makes everyone talk too much and do too little. It hinders the process of innovation that we need so much for the next decades – because we will grow immensely, we will set the stage for world events, we

will need content for education and entertainment as never before. If I could put on paper some words that would bring an essential definition to transmedia narrative

in these three years of hits and misses in stories in Brazil and in the USA I would write:

  • Balance between platforms
  • Quality of production
  • Short Mass media togenerate a quick knowledge of the story
  • Niche mediawith more time to deepen the story
  • TV or internet, radio or book, it doesn’t matter: the story needs to have a
  • central platform (a mother ship)
  • Produce specific content for each media, do not copy and paste
  • The story needs to always focus on two types of “people”: the general public and the fan, the person who will want more layers to your plot.
  • And last but not least, so that you will not need to make a Mea Culpa regarding your story, that could have been more successful and have generated more riches,

    invest a lot in Research and Development, make it right, make mistakes, run risks.

And what is the best environment to take risks and mix experiences, successes and

the scars of the consolidated with the transgressive energy of the new storytellers? A lab. In the city which will help to redraw the way culture and content are made in the world: Rio de Janeiro.

Welcome to the 1st Transmedia Lab of RioContentMarket.

Otaku Culture in a Connected World: An Interview with Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji (Part Three)

Mimi, your own contributions to the book explore what motivates peer-to-peer production in the Fansubbing and Anime Music Video communities. How might this research contribute to a larger understanding of the motivations shaping noncommercial cultural production?

Mimi:

I think both cases help fill out the story about fannish motivations for production, and also add an important transnational dimension to the discussions of noncommercial production and P2P circulation. In the case of AMVs, in a lot of ways the community and the motivations for participation parallel other forms of fan remix and appropriation, whether that is the live action vidding, fan fiction, or fan art. What is unique about AMVs though is the fact that the practice centers on transnational cultural remix, that localizes foreign visual content to popular local music. So it definitely involves reframing, retelling, or digging deeper into a particular series, but it’s also about making it speak to local cultural referents. For example, many editors talk about their work in terms of evangelizing for a particular series that might not be well known outside of Japan.

Or when an artist remixes a ninja series like Naruto to the audio of a Matrix trailer, he is making specific transnational connections around Asian martial arts and US cyberpunk culture.

MIT Tech TV

For fansubbers, the role of cross-cultural brokering is even more explicit. Unlike most forms of fan production, fansubbing is less about creativity and self expression and more about fidelity and very disciplined and often rote forms of work. I was first attracted to the community since I am bilingual myself and know just how hard it is to do translation work between English and Japanese. I was fascinated with why it was that fansubbers put in so much labor — translating, subtiling, timing, distributing — all on a voluntary basis. And many groups work in a tightly coordinated way on very intense timelines so that they can keep up with a series that is running weekly. It’s really backbreaking work. I found, again, that there were a lot of similarities in motivations with other forms of peer production, like what we’ve seen with communities around open source software or wikipedia. People engaged in the community for learning opportunities, through a sense of broader mission, to build reputation, and be part of a community. But again, like with AMVs, the transnational component adds an important twist to this equation. Fansubbers are filling a unique void in transnational connection by providing a high value function of translation and localization. Thus their sense of mission, of making the media they love available to people who wouldn’t have it, is very high. And it also helps that they can reach vast appreciative audiences because they are work faster than the commercial localization industry, and often sub series and in languages that the commercial industry won’t localize.

Your title stresses the role of networked communications in these fan communities. Would the current Otaku culture have been possible in a pre-internet era? Why or why not?

Daisuke:

Otaku culture has used snail mail to send around fan zines before the Internet, so even without today’s online networks, otaku culture has developed. By around 2000, however, in Japan it has become commonplace for otaku to upload their cosplay photos and fan comics, and to use online sites as archives.

Izumi:

As Daisuke suggests, the origins of otaku culture predated the Internet so there was definitely a pre-Internet otaku culture. It’s more that the Internet speeded up the pulse of otaku culture that had been developing slowly over the years, becoming the trigger for a sudden flowering. Internet media radically changed how otaku could stockpile and circulate information. In the mid nineties, the knowledge and information that individual otaku were gathering became a shared stockpile in informationl spaces. Further, by sharing this information with the world, otaku culture became accessible. Since the 2000s, however, I feel like social media have made the flows too fluid and active, and there’s not enough attention to information stocks. Otaku culture has become too lightweight. Put simply, I fear that social media and otaku are not well matched. At the end of the day, the value of otaku is in their individual stockpiling of information.

Mimi:

I think what Izumi is pointing to is that we are in an interesting transitional period where the Internet and otaku culture have become much more mainstream, accessible, and out in the open because of the scaling up of these networks and the advent of social media. In the early years of the Internet, it was much more geek and otaku centered, and felt like a match made in heaven, but I think today there’s a different feel to the online scene in part because the commercial industries have also taken to online culture in proactive ways now.For example, I think the golden years of fan digisubbing are coming to an end now that your’e seeing commercial localization industries working with a more fansub-like online model. So the distinction between mainstream commercial media and fan networked media is much blurrier. I’ve really learned from your work in this respect Henry. We’re definitely seeing the interplay happening in otaku culture too.

What do you see as the biggest disconnects between Japanese and American versions of Otaku culture?

Izumi:

I think the uniqueness of Japanese versions of otaku culture lie in the postwar origins and the stigma of a defeated nation. In my chapter on train otaku I describe the transition from military otaku to train otaku after Japan’s defeat. In the manga world, whether it is Osamu Tezuka, Fujio Fujiko, or Leiji Matsumoto, the memories of wartime defeat are deeply etched. Coming late to modernization, Japan felt it needed to catch up to advanced countries like the US and England, and embraced romantic ideals in relation so science and the military. At the same time, young men could only direct these romantic ideals to fictional worlds, thus giving birth to otaku. I don’ think you see this same backdrop to US otaku culture.

My understanding is that US otaku culture celebrate a somewhat more universal set of values. I sense this in Star Trek fans’ embrace of multiculturalism or in the early MIT hackers giving birth to a global computer culture.

Daisuke:

I think the biggest difference is that American otakue are much more open that Japanese otaku.

Mimi:

When Daisuke and I move between conventions between Japan the US its always a bit of a shock to see US kids out in the costumes on the street and in local restaurants. You’d never see that in Japan except maybe in Akihabara. It’s not considered appropriate to be in costume outside of the convention centers, where mainstream folk might see you. Even though otaku culture has become much more acceptable, there’s still a lot of work that the community does to make sure that they stay under the radar. In the US, anime fans take pride in consuming a kind of cult media, but Japanese fans are reframing a local mainstream media form in ways that the mainstream doesn’t always think is appropriate. They are seen as deviant and sometimes perverse consumers rather than cult consumers, and that continues to influence how the fandom operates.

Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, focusing on children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She has been conducting ongoing research on Kids’ technoculture in Japan and the United States, and she is coeditor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Youth Living and Learning with New Media, and author of Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software. She is professor in residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine.

Diasuke Okabe is a cognitive psychologist specializing in situated learning theory. His focus is interactional studies of learning and education in relation to new media technologies. He also conducts research on Japanese anime and manga fan culture. He is co-editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life and a lecturer at Tokyo City University.

Izumi Tsuji is a sociologist specializing in the sociology of culture. He has conducted extensive research on Japanese fan culture, including a study of fans of young idol musicians and train otaku. He is coauthor of Sore Zore no Fan Kenkyuu-I Am A Fan, a book on Japanese fan culture. He works as an associate professor at Cho University in Japan.

Otaku Culture in a Connected World: An Interview with Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji (Part Two)

A recurring theme in the book centers around Otaku expertise. At times, it seems as if “geeking out” is perhaps the defining trait of the Otaku, while the space of interest-driven participation is more expansive than we generally consider in talking about American fandom. As several of the authors suggest, unlike the accounts we have in the west of subcultures as a form of working class resistance, the Otaku is often seen as a rejection within rather than outside the establishment. How do we explain the relations between Otaku expertise and subcultural resistance?

Izumi:

This issue links back to what we were discussing earlier about the origins of otaku culture. I would say that today’s otaku culture can’t be described as subcultural resistance, and is really something different. The period after WWII and the student protests of the sixties saw the the defeat of forms of resistance associated with upper class young men, and their power of imagination had nowhere to go except to fictional worlds. This was the origin of otaku. That’s the process through which otaku culture became the destination for upper class men who fell of the status ladder. It follows that the origins of otaku culture can be found in elite culture, rather than cultures of resistance. Further, when the student protests, the focus of intergenerational warfare at the time, were defeated, there was the perception that cultures of resistance were impossible in this society. After the seventies, those who weren’t able to find a place for themselves in the rising consumer culture came to be called otaku. This is a convoluted way of saying that otaku culture can’t really be described as a culture of resistance.

Daisuke:

When I interview otaku college women in their twenties, they’re very conscious of “real-ju” communities [girls that have lively “real life” social lives], “legitimate” girl communities, and “gal-like” girl communities [street savvy fashionistas], and talk about how “these communities are different from us.” When they talk about other kinds of women, they do it in a self-deprecating way, that disparages themselves. I feel like women otaku communities are being constructed interactively with real-ju and gal girl communities, and isn’t so much an issue of subcultural resistance. (Though if you speak to women otaku they will describe real-ju and gals as mainstream culture.)

Mimi:

It does seem like different clusters of otaku have different orientations towards subculture and resistance. Izumi draws out the important point that the early origins of otaku culture can be found in train clubs at elite universities, and a kind of upper class nerd masculinity. With the growth of girl otaku culture in the eighties and nineties, however, I think the focus shifted to more lowbrow media like anime and manga and a stronger working class orientation. As Daisuke suggests, for these young women, it is about carving out alternative spaces for subjectivities that are different from normative masculinities or femininities and more mainstream status hierarchies. When we turn to the case of anime fans in the US, the situation is different still, where as Lawrence Eng writes, otaku are “reluctant insiders” who have a marginalized but generally middle class subjectivity. In many ways, the otaku in the US have some similarities to the early otaku cultures in Japan, in that they tend towards well educated middle class youth who don’t fit into the mainstream and “popular” gender dynamics, and are engaged in more of a subculture of appropriation rather than of resistance to power.

A key contribution of the book is its attention to gender-issues. How do women fit into Otaku culture? To what degree have they sought to define their own space and identities apart from those of male participants? What differences exist between the role of women in different forms of Otaku cultural production?

Daisuke:

Fujoshi [women otaku] often say, half-jokingly that “Society didn’t create porn for women so we had to make our own.” Romantic topics are a big part of women’s interests and consumption, more than you see with men’s content. Boy love content is an extension of this interest. Because they are women who are proactive about consuming romantic content, they are a good fit with otaku culture.

Izumi:

Even in the early years, I think there were women otaku. As Azusa Nakajima writes in Communication Zen Shoukou Gun [All Communication Symptoms Group], there were small numbers of women in the eighties and nineties who were readers of boy love genres in magazines like JUNE. This period was one where a women-centerd consumer and dating culture was at its peak, and there was no way that otaku with an interest in fantasy could be in the mainstream.

After 2000, however, we started to see consumer culture starting to loose its sheen with the bad economic times and declining interest in dating culture. Otaku culture began to gain attention as an alternative way of having fun. One symbol of this was the boom around Densha Otoko [Train Man] a popular story of a young otaku who was able to navigate a romantic relationship with the support of an anonymous online forum. After that, suddenly otaku had an image makeover.

Among women, the environment has shifted to become much easier to come out of the closet as otaku. Until recently, there was the stereotype that otaku were all young men who couldn’t get a date, but more increasingly, women also began to feel that they were also otaku and started to claim the term. That’s when you saw the blossoming of female otaku culture. Although male and female otaku are both a bit socially inept and have an interest in fantasy, what kinds of fictional worlds they pay attention to are different.

When male otaku look to fictional worlds, they focus on specific characteristics and components of beautiful girl characters, such as the shape of their face, or sexy body parts. This is why, as Azuma describes, they engage in “database consumption” in engaging with these different components. Women, however, rather than focusing on these individual parts, focus on the relationship between characters, such as who is dominant and submissive or the types of romantic pursuit, drawing more attention to the story and environments of the characters.

Because of these differences, female otaku started to identify themselves with the ironic term “fujoshi” [rotten women], and today fujoshi culture is in many ways more active then male otaku culture. One indicator of this is the fact that at Comiket (the largest fan comic convention in Japan), the first two days are centered on female content, and the last and final day on mens’ content.

Another real strength of this book is its focus on cultural geography, on the “scenes” where Otaku culture gets produced and consumed. How might we understand the place of Akihabara in creating and sustaining Otaku culture?

Daisuke:

When I talk to young college student otaku in their twenties, a suprising number of them go to Akihabara. They’ll go to get some electronic parts, materials to build their own anime figures, or to play card games in the Kentucky Fried Chicken there. And of course there are times when they go to purchase consumer electronics or to go to a maid cafe. It’s not necessarily, however, because Akihabara is sustaining the core of otaku culture. It feels to me like young people are consuming Akihbara as source material for their communication. If we need to get electronic parts, we might as well go to Akihabara! Or if we’re going to play card games together, how about we do it in Akihabara.

Izumi:

I also agree that Akihabara doesn’t actually directly sustain otaku culture. It’s already losing its centripetal force as the center of otaku culture. One reason is that Ikebukuro’s Otome Road has become a different center of female otaku culture. Another reason is the rise of social media, which has led to otaku gathering more in online space rather than in real life.

Originally, as an electronics district producing models and machines, it was a place for science-oriented young men to gather before it was a place for otaku. (The mecca of train otaku’s Transportation Museum was located there until 2005 too.) That was the basis for it transforming into an otaku mecca from the later nineties through the mid 2000s. After that, stores selling hardware starting converting to maid cafes. In this way, stores shifting from selling hardware and things to selling communication as a way of making Akihabara distinctive, and suddenly the sense of place became much more lightweight. Now with the growth of social media, Akihabara has lost its central role as a gathering spot for otaku.

Mimi:

I’ve also noticed a lot more mainstream media attention to otaku culture and Akihabara. When you go to Akihabara these days, it seems like there are more tourists and mainstream folk wanting to consume and observe an exotic subculture rather than the place being dominated by actual hardcore otaku. It feels like a theme park for fan culture, which is fun in a way, but also different from being the real core site of otaku activity. Ikebukuro and Nakano still have a bit of that more closeted and subaltern feel to it that Akihabara used to have though, so maybe the scene is just evolving to accommodate more variety in how people want to engage in otaku culture.

Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, focusing on children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She has been conducting ongoing research on Kids’ technoculture in Japan and the United States, and she is coeditor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Youth Living and Learning with New Media, and author of Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software. She is professor in residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine.

Diasuke Okabe is a cognitive psychologist specializing in situated learning theory. His focus is interactional studies of learning and education in relation to new media technologies. He also conducts research on Japanese anime and manga fan culture. He is co-editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life and a lecturer at Tokyo City University.

Izumi Tsuji is a sociologist specializing in the sociology of culture. He has conducted extensive research on Japanese fan culture, including a study of fans of young idol musicians and train otaku. He is coauthor of Sore Zore no Fan Kenkyuu-I Am A Fan, a book on Japanese fan culture. He works as an associate professor at Cho University in Japan.

“It’s 2012. Do You Know Where Your Avatar Is?”: An Interview with Beth Coleman (Part Two)

You reference your own avatar many times across the book but you do not tell us much about why you chose this self-representation or how you relate to your avatar. So, what’s the story?

Henry, it’s a tale of two cities, one academic and one engaged. Practically speaking, I had to make an avatar to do research in Second Life, as I would with any social media platform. In the same way, I had to have actual experience with the augmented reality and alternate reality games I describe in the book. So, on the one hand, my avatar is a simply a device, a way into the different platforms and communities I investigate. In a sense, my avatar is like a microphone. I need to have it to conduct research.

With that said, I am glad to be upfront about how my avatar functions because it has everything to do with me–who I am in my different facets as academic, artist, etc. So I will describe Hapi, my Second Life avatar, as an example of this positional Jujutsu. Hapi is a cute, white robot diminutive in size and genderless in affect that designed with Jenny Mu, a graphic artist and game designer from Parsons School of Design. From my point of view, Hapi was happily free of race, gender, or even humanness and that’s how we had intentionally designed that avatar.

In my experience, the highly identifiable avatar bodies of MMORPG and other graphical virtual worlds could carry a serious burden of identity. It felt heavy to me to have to represent so exactly a gender or race or even species. Additionally, I needed to find an avatar that other avatars would talk to in neither an overly aggressive nor sexualized way. So, I landed on a cute robot, which is a figure personally near and dear to me. In other moments, you and I have discussed the place of race and gender in the contemporary world, where we both find ourselves liberated from some forms of the historical trappings and, yet, also recreating them. And so, I saw my avatar persona not so much as an alternative or different me, but as a strategic extension of myself.

You include an interview where Cory Doctorow describes himself as “offloading” reading to his students and playing to his wife. I realize he is to some degree joking, but it does raise the question about whether one sentient being can function as an “avatar” for another under your definition. How much control must we be able to exert and how much identification must we feel in order to see something as an Avatar?

Cory, as we know, is scrupulous researcher and a person intensely committed to seeing through to completion the project of a networked open-source world. With that said, he is also an avatar of economy. He makes part of his work the work of outsourcing to the right sources. Alice Taylor, his partner, is an accomplished gamer; Cory will never be that. Thus, free riding over her shoulder is his best education. Boingboing.net, the massively popular blog site of which Cory is one of the founders is based on the premise that other people find the stories on which the blog posts are based. The bloggers of Boingboing do not do “original” research in the traditional sense; they aggregate information (one of the exceptions to this is Xeni Jardin and Cory’s first hand reports from Occupy Wall Street last winter). Cory describes this process of managing what would be for most of us information overload. He has tagged something about the aggregated now–the avatar effect as it were–that we need to attend to in moving forward. As for his students, Cory is pretty clear that he gives away books and asks students to report anything interesting. The students become proxy readers, but in a way that seems mutually beneficial and relatively transparent. If you think about the medieval formulation of the university and how graduate students are apprenticed, this seems like a relatively ethical approach.

What roles do you think telepresence plays within participatory culture?

Telepresence, or what I am calling copresence (the sense of being present with someone via mediation), is huge for participatory culture. We are moving unerringly toward a more graphic and increasingly real-time mediation. One of the things I underscore in the book is the idea that people in their everyday engagement of networked media create all kinds of innovation and intervention. I cite your work and that of Stefana Broadbent and Mimi Ito to support this point. I see copresence as one of the critical factors in how we move forward.

If my ideas of X-Reality hold–that online and worldly engagement become increasingly meshed–then copresence is a critical aspect of that progression. We feel each other across the networks. We strategize for regime change or denial of service attack or group buying power across these networks. The more vividly we feel each other’s presence the more effectively and passionately we can work together to achieve our ends.

What do you see as the distinction between “users” and “agents”?

Users, as I quote scholar Wendy Chun, get used. Agents are activists. I don’t mean exclusively political activists but, rather, the profile of one who engages. You yourself have talked about the importance of avid fan networks in the transitional state of moving from active viewer to active maker. I see this formulation of agency as the critically important to the theories of network society and open-source models that we find in influential thinkers such as Manuel Castells, Yochai Benkler, and Lawrence Lessig. In One Way Forward, Lessig’s most recent book, he takes as a given that We the People are agents, the authors of our destinies. He also says that that We the People is a sleeping giant that needs to awake to its power. I agree that we need to awaken to the power of networked agency. In my mind, X-Reality and copresence are tightly bound up in a notion of twenty-first century agency.

You use various metaphors – especially “supplement” and “augment”–to describe the ways we use digital communications in relation to face-to-face contact. Both of these imply a complimentary rather than oppositional relationship between the two. Elsewhere, you make the claim that human agents are “not entralled by technology.” How would you respond to critics who think we spend too much time in “virtual worlds” or in front of “screens”?

We spend a lot of time in front of screens. For my two bits as a media designer, I want to see us take these screens outside as often as possible, and I would like to see as much heads-up engagement as we can muster. What I see is people making the technology work for them by any means necessary. I invoke the Malcolm X adage because it is crucial to our sense of freedom and agency that we control our network outlook–our avatar.

I say this because of the data battles on the horizon. We have a shockingly new and powerful economic model where our data flows fuel the engine of Google or Facebook or other social media sites. We are at a moment when we need to consider seriously how we use network media to augment our lives–create greater opportunity for real-time and copresent exchanges. We are also at a moment when we need to reclaim our avatar

imprint, our data trail, as our own.

In this sense, my concept of augmented reality and mediation as a supplement to face-to-face presence are not metaphors at all. We actually use these mechanisms as we would a pair of glasses or a cane–we use them to see ourselves and each other more clearly. Think about whether you would rather lose your computer or your cell phone.

Most millennials would say without hesitation junk the computer. The hardware is nothing. The pervasive connection is everything.

You attempt to update Sherry Turkle’s discussion of people as “cycling through” virtual identities. What do you see as having changed since she wrote her book, Life on Screen?

I don’t think people cycle through. I think people use their online personas to extend, augment, and help actualize who they are in the world. I see what has historically been called “the virtual” as a contemporary aspect of augmentation. We don’t think of a telephone call as “virtual;” we think of it as extending connectivity beyond geographic limits. I am suggesting that online engagement should be thought of in the same way.

For business people whose only engagement with “cyberspace” in the 1990s was their Blackberry connectivity, this has always been the case. Today for teenagers using mobile and social media to make status updates in real-time, this is also the case. There is no

separation between the “virtual” and the “real.”

You compare your “virtual cannibal” with “Bungle the Clown” in Julian Dibbel’s classic essay, “A Rape in Cyberspace.” What has changed about “transgression” in online communities since Dibbel wrote his essay?

When Julian wrote that essay in the early 1990s we were both working as copy editors at the Village Voice. I saw in that piece and in that moment Julian framing a generational experience: we were the first generation of networked users to play wildly and freely in this undefined space of online. Subsequently, post-deluge, there are multitudes of us online. Julian translated a boutique experience to many.

Now, as I describe with the virtual cannibal, anyone can embark on a quest to find the edge of comfort and culturally acceptable behavior. There are two main points for me in understanding the experience of the virtual cannibal. First, we can Google extremist cultures and fairly easily join in the rumpus; in effect, as all things are more findable,

the historical idea of marginal cultures changes. The global jihadist movement illustrates this vividly. So does the sustained glee of the burners (Burning Man participants).

Second, the things we experience in simulated or virtual space are actual events in our lives. Julian’s story of Mr. Bungle has often been interpreted as a cautionary tail of the raging id of online life. I see it in a different way. I think “A Rape in Cyberspace” tells us, from very early one, that our actions online have clear, connected impact on our lives in the world. I think he tells one of the first proto-X-Reality stories, even if it has not been generally interpreted as such. The difference now is that transgression is normal, not exceptional, in an era of avatars and that everyone can be Mr. Bungle. 4chan certainly figured that out.

You end the book with a discussion of alternate and augmented reality games. What do these experiences teach us about living in relation to “x-reality”?

I think the most important technologies we see coming online today augment reality in some form or another. Whether it is a game played across a city (an alternate reality game) or a handheld-device with real-time feeds, we are experimenting and rapidly prototyping technologies of augmentation. We see a profound augmentation of reality in how movements such as Occupy Wall Street or the occupation of Tahrir Square or even the Tea Party all use network media for collective action. This is X-Reality in action. But I still hold near and dear to my heart (and my analysis), the everyday use of avatars as augmenting reality. X-Reality describes the way in which people right now make manifest a collective power and individual agency. I know, it’s a tall order. Nonetheless, it seems that we have amazing, vivid examples of this kind of heroism all around us.

Professor Beth Coleman believes in the power of storytelling to transform the world. She works with new technology and art to create transmedia forms of engagement. She is the director of City as Platform, Amsterdam, a Faculty Fellow at Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, as well as a professor at the Institute of Network Cultures, Hogeschool van Amsterdam. From 2005-2011, Coleman was an assistant professor of comparative media studies at MIT. As an artist, she has a history of international exhibition including venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Musée d’Art moderne Paris. She is the co-founder of SoundLab Cultural Alchemy, an internationally acclaimed multimedia performance platform. As the newly appointed co-director of the Critical Media Lab and a professor of English Literature and Languages at the University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada, she continues to work internationally with collaborators in through Africa, Europe, and Asia. Her book Hello Avatar is published by the MIT Press.

Otaku Culture in a Connected World: An Interview with Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji (Part One)

Over the past several decades, there has emerged a significant body of academic research in Japan which looks at Otaku culture — that is, the culture of a technologically literate segment of the population which is characterized by their impassioned engagement, skilled reworking, and intellectual mastery over elements borrowed from many aspects of popular culture, including not only anime and manga, but also games, popular music, digital culture, even history or trains. So far, relatively little of this work has been translated into English, which means that Fan Studies as practiced in the United States and Otaku Studies as it has developed in Japan have largely been autonomous fields. In practice, they have much to learn from each other, including forcing scholars to be more attentive to the cultural specificity of various fan practices, identities, aesthetics, and ideologies.

This is why I was so excited when I saw an advanced copy of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, and bringing together works by leading Japanese and western researchers interested in Otaku culture as both a national and transnational phenomenon. In many ways, the book represents a bridge between the western work on participatory culture and networked publics (represented by the kinds of work shared here by Ito and Lawrence Eng, among others) and work from Japan which has tended to be more rooted in critical sociology and postmodernism.

The collection represents a surprisingly diverse range of different kinds of fan practices — from the previously mentioned train watchers to cosplay, fan subbing, music video production, model building, and amateur comics publishing. A strong strand running through the book concerns the different locations (geographically, culturally) and networks (material and digital) through which Otaku culture unfolds. Given the three editors’ ongoing interests in forms of informal learning, there is also a strong focus on how these cultures reproduce themselves, how they recruit and orientate members, how they pass along core knowledge, and how they share resources towards common ends, all of which can add to a larger discussion about the nature and motivations for participatory culture. A solid introduction helps to situate these essays in larger critical conversations about Japan and its cultural impact on the modern world.

The three editors have graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog, so over the next three installments, I am going to share some of their core insights about the project of Otaku Studies and the place of Japanese fan and geek cultures in an era of transnational cultural flows.

The term, Otaku, is clearly a contested one and each chapter adds some new nuances to our understanding of it. Yet, it seems important to have at least a starting understanding of the concept to help frame this interview. What do you see as some of the unifying features of Otaku culture?

Mimi:

Yes, otaku is a clearly contested term, and one that has continued to evolve over time, and as folks overseas have taken up the term. In our book, Lawrence Eng has a chapter that looks extensively at how the term was first introduced to the US.

Izumi:

The conventional view of otaku is that are people who have a high degree of affinity with fictional worlds depicted in media, and that they are poor at relating with people in the real world. Until recently, otaku culture was dominated by men.

Mimi:

As otaku culture has become more mainstream and more international, I think it is slowly beginning to be seen in a more positive light.

Daisuke:

Personally, I like Toshio Okada’s definition of otaku culture as “a culture that enjoys the craftwork involved in artistic works.”

Mimi:

I’ve thought of otaku as inhabiting the space between what in the US we associate with “fan” and “geek” culture. It’s a media-centered geekdom that exhibits fannish enthusiasm and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, a strong orientation to remix, amateur DIY making, digital technology and P2P communication. There’s a focus on the media types of manga, anime, and computer games, though as you’ll see in our book, there are other kinds of otaku culture that might be less familiar for US readers such train otaku, political media otaku, and the game arcade scene.

Many of the essays capture a sense of “shame” or “uncertainty” about the status of the Otaku, especially when read against the more empowered or defiant discourse of American fandom. Why has the Otaku been such a troubled figure in Japanese culture? And how do we reconcile this sense of shame with the scope and scale of Otaku activities? American fans would dream of a more or less dedicated fan district (Akihabara) in a major American city!

Izumi:

Otaku culture has been a destination for upper class young men who have fallen off the status ladder. In the postwar period, at least until the period of rapid economic growth in the sixties, I don’t think that it was shameful for men to have otaku tendencies. Young men who were not very oriented to the opposite sex, attracted to fantasy and the imagination, and highly knowledgeable were actually called with respect “Hakase-Kun” [Mister Professor]. An orientation to knowledge and expertise was considered valuable in the pre-war period for the work of the empire building, and in the postwar period, for economic development. After the growth of consumer culture in the seventies and beyond, however, certain forms of masculinity started to become irrelevant. Those folks who couldn’t quite adapt to these new social changes, and continued to embrace prior masculine values, began to be labeled as otaku.

Mimi:

After the shift to a more consumer and media centered otaku culture in the eighties and nineties, we saw otaku culture being associated with more lowbrow and feminine cultural forms with a much stronger skew towards fan culture, manga, electronic games, and anime. We also saw the growth of depictions of what many people would consider “alternative” forms of sexuality, including a strong fantasy component or in the case of girl culture, “boy love” genres that resemble slash genres in the US. In the eighties, there was also a high profile case of a rapist-murderer who targeted little girls, and was involved in anime porn. All of this has contributed to a sense of otaku culture being deviant or shameful. At the same time, the esoteric, alternative and subcultural dimension of otaku culture is also part of the appeal. It has become a kind of zone of cultural tolerance for non-mainstream imaginative life. This is why it is such a thriving subculture that is increasingly out in the open in the urban districts like Akihabara and Ikebukuro, even as individuals may hide their personal involvement in it. As Daisuke describes in his chapter on girl otaku, there’s often great guilty pleasure to be had in sharing insider references with fellow otaku, but hiding their identity from their family, boyfriends, and mainstream peers.

What can you tell us about the context in the Japanese academy that these essays emerge from? There is now a thirty year plus history of American Fan Studies research. Is there an equally long history of Otaku research in Japan or is it a relatively new field?

Daisuke:

I think we can probably peg the start of otaku research to the publication of Shinji Miyadai’s Dismantling the Subcultural Myth. Before that, there were commentators like Akio Nakamori and Toshio Okada, but academic fan studies is about twenty years old. Since then, we’ve seen otaku research get some traction in sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, media studies, and communication studies. It’s been in the past five to ten years that we’ve seen it becoming less rare for a graduate student to want to do their thesis on otaku culture. Today, otaku studies is flourishing, but it is a relatively new field.

Izumi:

As you see in the essays in our book, otaku culture research has developed largely out of sociology. There’s two reasons for this. One reason is that otaku were seen as antisocial and as a social problem, so they were taken up as an issue for communication research. Conversely, although people are beginning to recognize the value of the content of otaku culture, it took some time before it was taken seriously as an object of academic study. Even today, scholarly humanistic study in Japan centers on more traditional cultural forms, and content associated with otaku culture is generally taken up by more journalistic commentators. As a result, sociological approaches have tended to take the lead in Japan’s otaku culture research.

One key body of trailblazing work was conducted by a team led by Shinji Miydai in the nineties, which involved survey work among college students. They were able to demonstrate, though quantitative research, that the youth-centered consumer culture gave rise to both the street and fashion-savvy consumerist _shinjinrui_ [new breed], as well as the anti-communicative otaku.

Compared to fan studies in the US, Japanese otaku culture research has become fragmented. I feel it’s a problem that we don’t see the development of broad and systematic research. Sociology has taken up the problem of communication, literary studies has taken up the content focus, and internet researchers have taken up the topic of online media, but very little of this work is organically linked. Many famous otaku theorists who followed Miyadai, such as Hiroko Azuma and Tsunehiro Uno, have conducted sociological research but are not trained as sociologists. Since the nineties, work has been sporadic and dominated by one-off studies, and while there have been some exemplary works (some of which are represented in our book), but no single systematic “otaku theory” that unified this work.

The fragmentation of research based on different characteristics of otaku culture, and the fact that historically there has not been an organic link between this works, seems to be a difference with US fan studies. One reason for this weakness may be that Japan has few anthologies like the book that we have just put together.

Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, focusing on children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She has been conducting ongoing research on Kids’ technoculture in Japan and the United States, and she is coeditor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Youth Living and Learning with New Media, and author of Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software. She is professor in residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine.

Diasuke Okabe is a cognitive psychologist specializing in situated learning theory. His focus is interactional studies of learning and education in relation to new media technologies. He also conducts research on Japanese anime and manga fan culture. He is co-editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life and a lecturer at Tokyo City University.

Izumi Tsuji is a sociologist specializing in the sociology of culture. He has conducted extensive research on Japanese fan culture, including a study of fans of young idol musicians and train otaku. He is coauthor of Sore Zore no Fan Kenkyuu-I Am A Fan, a book on Japanese fan culture. He works as an associate professor at Cho University in Japan.

“It’s 2012. Do You Know Where Your Avatar Is?”: An Interview with Beth Coleman (Part One)

I first met Beth Coleman when she spoke at the first Race in Digital Spaces conference, one of two joint events hosted, curiously enough, between MIT and USC in 2001-2002. I wrote at the time, “

Cyberspace has been represented as a race-blind environment, yet we don’t shed our racial identities or escape racism just because we go on line…The concept of ‘digital divide,’ however, is inadequate to describe a moment when minority use of digital technologies is dramatically increasing. The time has come to focus on the success stories, to identify examples of work that has increased minority access to information technologies and visibility in digital spaces.”

Coleman was there as an academic speaker on one of our plenary panel and in her guise as Dj Singe from Soundlab Cultural Alchemy, she performed alongside DJ Spooky and others. This helped to cement in my mind the image of Coleman as a gifted theorist/scholar, artist/performer, and activist, who was going to help teach us to think in new ways about digital experiences and identities.

Flash forward to the present moment. I brought Coleman to MIT to be a colleague in the Comparative Media Studies Program where she taught for many years. She’s continued to do cutting edge work not only in sound design but also in transmedia and locative media experiences. And she’s just come out with a hot new book, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation, which is making people’s heads explode.

You may think you know all about avatars and virtual worlds: this was what we were talking about with great anticipation five or six years ago, and what has fallen from grace once everyone got past the buzz about Second Life. But, Coleman is turning this concept on its head, getting us to think about what she calls “x reality” which lies at the intersection between our digital and physical identities, thinking of our new social media as themselves places where we construct and deploy avatars, and thinking about new forms of information and entertainment which are going to be part of our fused identities in the not so distant future. I had watched the book develop over time, but nevertheless was surprised and intrigued by some of the reframing of its core concerns which had taken place in the past few years. It’s a short book but it packs a wallop, as I think will be suggested by this interview.

Reading Clay Shirkey’s introduction, I am reminded of our three way exchange about the future of Second Life which was conducted via our blogs. You and I were far more optomistic than Shirkey about the long-term impact of this early virtual world. What are your thoughts reflecting on the issues of that debate with 20-20 hindsight?

In a nutshell, Clay was right. Second Life was too hard to use and too

essentially dorky in its “sexy avatar” ethos to achieve and sustain a broad

popular interest. Although it aspired to be a kind of Facebook, where people

would use it as hub for information, it was not that for multiple reasons. That said, Henry, I think that you and I got the spirit of the thing right. We were both pointing to the aspirational uses of the site, where people as represented by their avatars strove to create often utopian spaces. I am suggesting that those utopian space (even when they come in rather dystopic forms like my virtual cannibal) present actual events in

peoples’ lives that they use, often, as a point of leverage to transform themselves. And that is what I argue in the book. Sure, Second Life was a powerful chapter in the innovation of graphic networked engagement. But the big change in network engagement is what I am calling X-Reality: the sense that all our worlds, spanning the simulated to the bodily, are working toward a greater sense of an avatar existence. In short, we are neither “virtual” or “real” but rather these networked creatures whose technologically mediated exchanges directly impact our worldly experience. The #occupy movement, the Arab Spring, even Obama’s election campaign make it achingly clear that we are now occupying X-spaces in a way that we were not at the turn of the century or in the 1990s. I think Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) got their own message wrong. If they were creating a cyber-escape from reality, then they did not realize what

century they were working in.

Given what we now know about Second Life, what do you see as the likely future of virtual worlds?

We will only see more graphically rich interactive spaces. In my definition of virtual worlds, I include Facebook and other kinds of social sites where we create by text, image, and sound the image of ourselves–the avatars as it were–that we use as our public faces. This type of “virtual” representation is not new. In the book, I talk about the concept of “persona” in ancient Rome, where one’s reputation as citizen was based on how one crafted a public face.This crafting of a public face is happening at a global scale today with the support of social network platforms. In this sense, the virtual worlds of our

network persona are now a part of daily life. And the scale at which we engage

this type of virtual world is immense.

In terms of the traditional, more narrow definition of a virtual world as a walled garden of text or graphic space….well, small, distinct user communities will always populate these platforms. But for the real future of the virtual world, we have to think about the value of shared, real-time visualization tools applied to the pressing issues of the day. Mapping radiation levels in Japan, crisis mapping across Kenya…these are recent historical events that illustrate the value of shared real-time graphical/informational tools. It is

no longer a virtual world. It’s a networked one.

A key concept running through the book is that of “x-reality.” What do you mean by this term and how does this approach differ from some older ways of talking about online experience?

At base, I use the term X-reality to signal that we are no longer role-playing online, trying out identities as it has been proposed, but, rather, that we have harnessed the power of online networks to build the world we would like to see. That it is a real world we are building is clear; that this real world includes all kinds of technological mediation is also clear. In this sense, X-Reality is a break from prior theories of online engagement.

Historically, and here I am thinking of Sherry Turkle and Julian Dibbells’ seminal work in the 1990s exploring online communities (but we find the same perspective in the cyberpunk of William Gibson, the technofuturism of Wired, and the libertarian hacker ethos of the code writers and legal activists of the “free” Internet), cyberspace was a space away from the rest of the world. It was a place of adventure, play, and marvelous experimentation for the few who learned how to engage in that technologically compelling and difficult space.

So it is a moment of legend, where hackers were cowboys and everything was up for grabs as long as you left the body and any ideas of embodied experience out of it. Now, some twenty years after launch of the World Wide Web as the popular (and graphical) adoption of the Internet, we see a different world. In my estimation, it is an X-reality world. I mean by this idea of X-reality that we, as networked subjects, as people who engage in mediated communication of many sorts all the time, live our daily lives somewhere between what had been the virtual and what had been the real. In other words, when you send me a text message or follow me on Twitter, you are using all manner of real-time mediation without even worrying about the fact that we are reaching each other in what might reasonably described as “cyberspace.” As with the telephone and other real-time media technologies we have incorporated into our lives, we have reached a point with online networks where the distinction between the virtual of mediation and the real of embodied experience mash up into each other. In other words, increasingly we understand our world to be a porous one where the events of online exchange influence the events of the physical world. We are neither virtual nor real but a mix of theses states. And this is what I am calling X-Reality. One of the things I am grateful for is that we do not see a strong first world-versus-emerging world bias here. This is not about reliving the PC revolution of North America and Central Europe of the 1990s. The shift to X-Reality is a global one.

Another core concept here is that of the Avatar which you descirbe as a “figure of transition.” How are you defining avatar in this book? What roles do avatar play in social and mobile media as opposed to in virtual worlds?

As I discussed a bit above, I think that we all engage in deep avatar play, regardless of the platforms we use. So, for example, in a classic virtual world, you will have a little figure running around a graphical or textual world that represents you, one way or another. But the space for greatest cultural shift around avatars has not so much been virtual or game worlds but the pervasive use of social media. We are everyday using mediated forms to represent us as proxies. Avatars are figures of transition in the sense that we have already arrived at a moment where it is normal to have your Twitter persona or your Facebook page convey important information about who you are. Essentially, I think James Cameron got it right with his vision of science fiction jungle utopia. In the film Avatar, the avatars were figures of transitions, conduits to a fuller self for the protagonist Jake Sully. In our everyday experience of avatars we may not be blue, giant, or quite as magical, but we are increasingly recognizing the power of our connectivity and how we might transform ourselves. The transition I see is the shift from an idea of role-playing online to the instantiation of avatars as ambassadors–the networked presence that precedes or augments the face-to-face encounter.

Professor Beth Coleman believes in the power of storytelling to transform the world. She works with new technology and art to create transmedia forms of engagement. She is the director of City as Platform, Amsterdam, a Faculty Fellow at Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, as well as a professor at the Institute of Network Cultures, Hogeschool van Amsterdam. From 2005-2011, Coleman was an assistant professor of comparative media studies at MIT. As an artist, she has a history of international exhibition including venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Musée d’Art moderne Paris. She is the co-founder of SoundLab Cultural Alchemy, an internationally acclaimed multimedia performance platform. As the newly appointed co-director of the Critical Media Lab and a professor of English Literature and Languages at the University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada, she continues to work internationally with collaborators in through Africa, Europe, and Asia. Her book Hello Avatar is published by the MIT Press.

Watching the Internet: An Interview with Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo (Part Two)

What aspects of the Long Tail theory do you find convincing as a means of explaining what kinds of content will thrive in a networked culture? What do you see as the limitations of this model?

I don’t believe the Long Tail exists, neither socially nor economically. The Net has permitted the emergence of a certain unsatisfied demand, but it is very small. The physical barriers to analogue distribution are greater on the Net. Added to that, the most difficult barriers to break down are the social, cultural and psychological ones. For example, World Cinema in the United States: before it was not possible to see these films because they weren’t distributed, but even with the Net, the viewing of them has not increased. This is spite of them being free in many cases (P2P or Megaloud).

Some have imagined that user-generated content will eventually displace commercial media content (seeing this either in terms of a liberation or a decline). Yet, you seem to be suggesting that different kinds of content will co-exist on the web for the foreseeable future. In such a world, what mechanisms will need to exist to help viewers find content which is meaningful and pleasurable to them?

It is a Utopia. I think that the UGC will grow considerably in the next few years, but will coexist with professional content. The new viewer will be omnivorous but we can’t generalize, it is necessary to distinguish. A film is not the same as an application for an iPhone or a poem. There is content which will greatly develop but it is difficult to imagine that USG will substitute professional content. This needs a large investment of capital which needs to be translated into income or corporate earnings.

You are generally dismissive of what you call “the utopia of free-of-charge.” Yet, many have wondered how they can develop business models to get people to pay for content given these expectations. What steps do you foresee which might enable a transition from “free” to “paid” content models on the web?

Small subscription payments and advertising cannot sustain the current investment in content. It’s impossible. The content should be more attractive to people to the point where they are willing to pay. I think we should maintain the neutrality of the Net and wait for innovations from the users and the logical evolution of the social networks. Facebook and Google set the standard. New business models will also appear with low profits and prices which are more attractive to users. But, advertising investment in the internet is still small and, added to that, all advertising which exists on the Net is not going to finance content (yellow pages).

Much of the book is spent describing some of the risks that television content producers face in the digital era, yet you also identify some advantages of operating across these media platforms. What are some of them?

The risk for the content producers is the difficulty they have in making money from the internet. The use of the internet is on the rise and the income from it is not increasing at the same rate. The advantages come from the fact that the net is a cheap and efficient system of distribution. It can unite producers and consumers and thereby exclude the intermediaries from the supply chain. I sometimes dream about millions of consumers in the world who can pay a little to watch a hit film, an episode of a series or to read a newspaper at a price which is much lower that what they are paying today. For the rest it could be free. This would be a good business for the producers. It is economy of scale.

Throughout, you seem skeptical of some of the claims made for collective intelligence emerging via networked communications. Where do your reservations come from?

For me it is very difficult to understand the concept of collective intelligence. The example of Wikipedia is usually given, but the management of the information demands time for it’s organization and structuring. A company can do this much more efficiently than an army of net surfers. I am also not convinced by the idea of giving our individual know-how for free for the benefit of the collective. At the root of it is work. Although I also believe in the free-time productivity of the net users. We will see over the next few years how this matter develops.

What do you see as the biggest threats to the hopes for the web remaining a more participatory medium than previous forms of broadcasting?

The interests of traditional companies: media, Hollywood etc. This is a medium that they do not control and from which they do not obtain sufficient profit. They lose more than they earn (those who read the press on paper Vs those who read it digitally, a cinema goer Vs a net viewer). The most successful companies on the net are those which do not have content: Google, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon etc. Companies will try to question the neutrality of and to limit the freedom which exists on the net. The signing of the ACTA agreement by different countries is a clear signal of the danger. They are also going to defend the current system of control of content, that’s to say, conventional distribution via different methods (cinema, video, cable, etc.). They are reluctant to release content using the new global distributors such as iTunes, Netflix, Facebook or Microsoft with the XBOX etc.

Another big threat for the internet as a participatory medium is the privacy control of personal information on social networks. Also, the collection of data regarding people’s surfing habits which other companies are interested in, in order to target their marketing campaigns, as the press highlighted days ago.

I am also a great critic, perhaps unfairly, understanding that their thesis could be more pertinent than mine. But the majority of people don’t have much to say. It is the convenience of passivity and the lack of “habitus” which was highlighted by Bordie. To be an expert takes a lot of work. There have always been social networks. When the Bastille was stormed the internet did not exist.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo is Professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. In addition, he currently holds positions as the Vice Rector for European Harmonisation and Convergence and Director of the International Doctorate School of URJC; Course Director for the Master’s in Television Journalism; Coordinator of the Masters in Film, Television, and Interactive Media Studies; and Director of the INFOCENT research group. Professor Alvarez has written and co-written thirty0six books and more than twenty papers for scientific journals on the economy of communications, the cultural industries and new information technologies. Some of his works include The Future of Audiovisual Media in Spain (1992), The Film Industry in Spain (1993), Premium Images (1997), The Present and Future of Digital Television (1999), The Future of Home Entertainment (2004) and Cultural Policy Alternatives (2007).

Watching the Internet: An Interview with Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo (Part One)

This summer, I am embarking on an extraordinary adventure — a 20 city lecture tour of Europe. I have been long overdue paying a visit to the Continent, not having visited there since Convergence Culture has been translated into a host of different languages, and this will be my chance to visit academics, public intellectuals, cultural leaders, and transmedia producers, and learn more about the ways these various nations have responded to the shifts in the media landscape which my works describe. I am excited at the prospect of meeting many new thinkers there. I am still struggling to decide how to deal with this blog while on this exhausting journey but in the long run, it should allow me to bring more perspectives to you.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo, a professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, will be one of my many hosts on this trip, and he shared with me the English translation of one of his recent books, Watching the Internet: The Future of TV?, which takes up many of the issues we like to discuss through this blog. I asked him if he would be willing to do an interview and share some of his takes on the intersection between old and new media as seen from his perspective, as a veteran of the old media industries and as someone deeply immersed in a Spanish context.

Early on, you quote Gilles Lipovetsky’s description of “the unstoppable process of individualization.” What factors do you think are leading to the individualization and personalization of our media experiences? How does this personalization impact the existing models shaping the entertainment content industries?

I think there are two distinct, though closely related tendencies. On the one hand there is a tendency towards social individualism which is referred to by Lipovetsky, and on the other hand there is that which refers to the experience of the media. I think the first is indisputable, at least in Europe. “Close relationships” have diminished considerably in recent years (going to church or to the cinema on Sundays, chatting on public transport, talking every day to the person who sells you your newspaper or to the one who serves you coffee in the neighbourhood where you live etc.. There is a great demand to escape from “social control” or anonymity. With regard to television or the cinema I think there is also a trend towards individualism. The concept of the family sitting together in front of the television has disappeared and groups of friends who go to the cinema are doing so less frequently.

However, social networks allow a new social relationship that is replacing the previous ones. I do not agree with Lipovetsky when he argues that virtual communities will eventually destroy the real community, the direct encounter, collective bonds. This is a new form of social relationship that overlaps with the previous ones.

The factors which explain the new socialisation process are very diverse and profound: changes in the family, the design and planning of cities, new forms of social relationship with the arrival of the internet etc. Nobody is denying that the Internet is a powerful tool which allows a new form of socialisation, although it also has the opposite effect: for example, parents have fewer opportunities to have a relationship with their children as they are using social networks or mobiles. The content industries are already taking into account the personalisation and individualism of nomad entertainment. More and more variations of different products are being made to be used on different devices and in different locations: from the cinema to tablets. I think there is still much to be done in this area.

Others, myself among them, argue that television viewing has in fact become more “socialized” as people respond to and debate what they are watching through formal and informal social networks. Would you agree?

Yes, I agree in general terms as people are talking, expressing their opinions, debating and sharing much more than in the past. However, I also believe that television audiences have become much more fragmented in the last few years. The mass audiences of the past are more divided. Broadcasting vs narrowcasting. New digital divides are being created (in their use of the net), economic and social (between the rich and poor), generational (young people, the middle aged and elderly) and cultural (technophobes and technofiles). Inside every group, however, a larger socialisation has appeared. For example, television is more “collectivised” and the dreamed of interactivity of the past is starting to become reality

.

You write, “The social functions once fulfilled by TV are in crisis, while new ones have yet to be defined.” Does this imply that television is in crisis? Should a medium survive if it has outlived its social functions?

In Europe, yes. The television of the masses which emerged during the previous century to inform, teach and entertain and was controlled by the State has died. All of the public television stations are in crisis and commercial television, though highly competitive, is losing audiences and advertising. Young people are now deciding how to do these three things. That form of television is changing at the hands of the internet. The logic of demand is changing to the logic of choice. It is the viewer who decides what he wants to see.

Is the “new television” television, and if so, how do we define this medium? Is watching a television series on Hulu television? Is watching a web series? What about playing a game on our television set? What defines the nature of this medium — the content, the delivery technology, our modes of consumption, its social functions?

This new concept will be created by all of us. But for me, what defines television is the content. When we watch an HBO series, we are watching television. It doesn’t matter what screen we are watching it on or the type of telecommunication (cable, satellite, ADSL etc) .The day the internet produces content, things will change. We will then have to invent new concepts. Hulu will always be a joint venture…….

As you note, the rate of change has been uneven across countries and later, you point out that Spain has one of the lowest level of creative participation in net culture in the world. How would you describe the current state of participatory culture in your country and what factors do you think contribute to its relatively slow rate of creative sharing?

This has more to do with what the statistics say than with my opinion. Spain is the leader in pirating and, traditionally, a culture of sharing has not existed, to the point of defrauding the tax office being well looked upon. The Spanish are individualists, in contrast to what is usually supposed. However, I believe that little by little the UGC is catching on among young people, but more slowly than in other countries.

To what degree do you think television will become a global rather than a local, national, or regional medium in an era of networked communications?

Global television for big events (sports, news programmes etc) will continue for a time and will coexist with regional and national television. The Net will complement and start to integrate with television. The internet offers a fascinating complementary opportunity.

Like many others, you speculate that the BRIC countries may become dominant players in the audiovisual culture of the future. Since I have many readers from those countries, I wondered if you might spell out a bit more what you think their impact is going to be and what factors might lead to their increased visibility in the global media market.

I don’t believe so. The global mainstream will be North American. It will be difficult for them to break into China but they will manage it in the end. My position is very similar to that of Frédéric Martel. We are moving towards “standardised diversity”. We are not faced with a value system that wants to impose itself on the world, rather a “hydra” of companies that feed off each other and know how to adapt themselves to circumstances. The power of the USA on the net and in the production of content makes me think this. Without doubt, styles and vanguards from other cultures will be incorporated, just as happened during the 20th Century. The size of the American national market will help to provide high production costs which will make it very difficult for other cultures to compete.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo is Professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. In addition, he currently holds positions as the Vice Rector for European Harmonisation and Convergence and Director of the International Doctorate School of URJC; Course Director for the Master’s in Television Journalism; Coordinator of the Masters in Film, Television, and Interactive Media Studies; and Director of the INFOCENT research group. Professor Alvarez has written and co-written thirty0six books and more than twenty papers for scientific journals on the economy of communications, the cultural industries and new information technologies. Some of his works include The Future of Audiovisual Media in Spain (1992), The Film Industry in Spain (1993), Premium Images (1997), The Present and Future of Digital Television (1999), The Future of Home Entertainment (2004) and Cultural Policy Alternatives (2007).

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: A 21st Century Study Guide for Rocky Horror Picture Show

Last fall, I was asked by a USC dorm which was planning a field trip to Los Angeles’ NuArt Cinema to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show if I might share some reflections with them to stimulate thought and discussion about the experience. As someone who had been a Rocky Horror fan in the 1970s, I approached this task with some bemusement, but I also saw it as a chance to think a bit more deeply about the “cult film experience” as it has evolved over time. Here’s what I shared with those students:

From Wikipedia:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the 1975 film adaptation of the British rock musical stageplay, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, written by Richard O’Brien. The film is a parody of B-movie, science fiction and horror films of the late 1940s through early 1970s. Director Jim Sharman collaborated on the screenplay with O’Brien, who wrote both the book and lyrics for the stage. The film introduces Tim Curry and features Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick along with cast members from the original Kings Road production presented at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1973.

Still in limited release 36 years after its premiere, it has the longest-running theatrical release in film history. It gained notoriety as a midnight movie in 1977 when audiences began participating with the film in theatres. Rocky Horror is the first film from a major Hollywood studio to be in the midnight movie market. The motion picture has a large international cult following and is one of the most well known and financially successful midnight movies of all time. In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you have the Rocky Horror Picture Show experience almost 40 years after it all began.

What Constitutes a Cult Movie?: Film scholar Timothy Corrigan writes, “Cult movies are always after a fashion foreign films: the images are especially exotic; the viewer uniquely touristic; and with that relationship viewers get to go places, see things, and manipulate customs in a way that no indigeneous member of that culture or mainstream filmgoer normally could.” So, what is it about Rocky Horror Picture Show which has engendered this kind of response? If this is a touristic experience, then where does it invite us to travel, what world does it open for us?

Manufactured or Discovered: A key debate among people who have studied cult movies is whether cult movies can be designed and manufactured to inspire this kind of devoted response or whether they must be found and cultivated by their audience. People have made both arguments about Rocky Horror. The original stage production already passed out sheets instructing the audience on how to dance the Time Warp, and thus clearly invited our participation. But, it is the audience participation which has sustained interest in this property over time, even as other contemporary “Midnight Movies” have long ago faded into the background. So, what properties of the film and of the audience participation inspire such passion?

From Cult Movies to Cult Television — Some have argued that Rocky Horror represents the last gasp of a public film culture — that is, the values of movie-going as a shared culture experience. Which contemporary films become events in anywhere close to the same way that the Rocky Horror Picture Show is? Most contemporary cult movies have emerged as such because people watched them on television or DVD. Today, television shows are more apt to become cult objects than movies, and the experience is more likely to be an online experience.

Rocky Horror as Ritual — When the “Midnight Movies” emerged, they were often discussed anthropologically in terms of the collective performance of rituals. So, there are certain gestures, lines, and actions which are performed and reperformed, taking on special meaning and significance to those who repeat them week after week. What role might popular rituals perform in an increasingly secular society? Are there other examples you know of popular rituals of this kind?

Rocky Horror as Spectacle: When it began, the argument was that Rocky Horror was like traditional carnival — a space where there was no division between performers and audiences. Over time, though, has it become more like a spectacle, where certain people — now semi-professional — perform their parts every week for the amusement of others who come once or twice to watch. Do you feel fully a part of the Rocky Horror experience?

Transgression and Tradition: This movie/experience celebrates transgression. For the first generation who went to the film, it was all about the shock appeal — the sense that our parents would not go to see a movie featuring a singing transvestite. But, now that this event has been going on for almost four decades, the odds are that many of you have parents who saw this film as an undergraduate. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, today, is almost a historical re-enactment, one deeply immersed in a sense of tradition. And what counted as transgressive in the 1970s may seem much more familiar in the 21st century. So, does the film still maintain its transgressiveness under these circumstances and if so, how?

Room for Improvization?: Many of the practices now associated with Rocky Horror emerged through practices of improvization, as different audience members added their own contributions to the mix. Yet, these practices are increasingly codified. What space remains for spontaneous audience response?

Local and Global: Rocky Horror is a global media phenomenon, yet it is also one which gets performed locally — tied to specific theaters and specific communities in specific cities. What aspects of the NuArt performance of Rocky Horror seem specific to Los Angeles? What signs if any do you see of the global dimensions of this tradition?

Are You A Virgin?: A classic ritual at many Rocky Horror screenings is to identify those in the audience who are seeing the film for the first time. In the 1970s, it was possible to come to the movie knowing very little about what to expect. But, as RockyHorror references have spread across the culture (for example, Glee did a special Rocky Horror themed episode last year), does anyone really enter the theater without some preconceptions about what they are going to experience? And if not, then what are the consequence of this pre-knowledge?

Talk Among Yourselves.